Following Frida

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Deepayan Bhattacharjee

I hate the coffee they serve at Starbucks. But I like one of the baristas in our local shop. So I go to that terrible coffee shop almost every evening, stay there for two to three hours, read a little and study for a while and write some gibberish in a pretentious notebook or even more pretentious tablet and, most importantly, watch the beautiful lady from time to time. She has curly brunette hair tied up in a murderous manner over her head, and her lips are exactly like the girl who stomped on my shattered heart until it was the finest powder on earth and then blew it all over the 42nd street subway tracks and then smothered my apathetic soul. In case you are wondering how good that is, let me say, it’s a pretty cool pair of lips. Her appearance creates an illusion that suggests that she sprang right off from one of Vermeer’s paintings. But she wears glasses which, I think, is definitely absent in Vermeer’s dames – unless they find a new one with a pair.

I pointed her to Ned, who was accompanying me one day, and asked, with a dazed look in my eyes,

“She is an absolutely wonderful looking girl. Ain’t she?”

“I find all the women equally beautiful.” He responded wisely.

Ned is about sixty, but he can beat me in a 10K run. Ned has a white BMW convertible which he drives to take classes on war history in the university. He gave me a ride to my lab once, that’s how we met. He is a nice guy to hang out with. We talked about Iceland for a while, which both of us have ambitions to visit soon, and then Ned looked at her again. After a minute he turned to me and said,

“Well she has a certain bit of charm, I’ll give you that.”

“A bit of charm? Don’t kid me old man, she is stunning! Look at her hair, look at those lips (Ah, those damn lips again…)!”

“Yeah, well… I have to leave now. See you later, man. Peace.”

He then walked up to her, offered a damn nice smile and said,

“Hello darling, can you tell me where the men’s room is?”

***

I don’t know her name. Like all other baristas she wears a name-tag on her apron, but it’s blank for some reason. For the sake of convenience, let me call her Frida from now on, because she gives me a free coffee every time I go there. Well, to be specific, the second cup of coffee is always on-the-house for me if Frida is on the counter. Which is great, I am a sucker for free stuff. Needless to say, I only get up for a refill if I see her on the counter duty. She is busy all the time, either attending the customers, or making designer coffee for the apostate coffee lovers, or sweeping the café floor and taking out the garbage, or arranging and rearranging the cookies and pasties and other over-priced food items on the display counter. I hardly see her take any break while she is on duty. Life of a barista is not easy. But she always smiles and she is always nice to me. And to all the other customers too, to my utter dismay. She looks at me once in a while, and gives me a tiny smile. The look is real but the smile may be a product of my imagination. Doesn’t matter, imagined or not, I fly with the smile every time she looks at me. I pretend to hardly notice and keep writing gibberish. Now that I think of it, I never pay any attention to the other baristas. How rude of me!

***

I usually walk back to my home from the village when it’s dark and the streets are almost deserted. The house is at the top of a hill. Before the hill starts there is a big house with a white picket fence, so white that it shines even in the darkness. One of the days, I was forming a story in mind when I was walking past the shiny fence. I developed a habit of thinking about strange stories while returning home at the dead of the night just to get rid of sheer boredom and to ignore the steep climb. These stories are like summer drizzles. They are born in my mind and they die in my mind without leaving any lasting effect, like the pitch road dries up promptly, as soon as the short rain ends and it’s the summer sunshine back in control again. Well, most of the made up stories are like this, just for my temporary self-gratification, one can compare them with masturbation too – it won’t be too far off. Some kind of a mental jerk off. But on rare occasions, some of these pieces stay with me for a longer period of time, for one reason or another. The narrative I was forming in my mind that day while walking past the picket fence was one such story. It got stuck in my head, not because it was particularly good or interesting or anything like that; only because of something that happened the very next day.

The story goes somewhat like this:

“It was nighttime at a road called Abbey Street in a city named Dublin. It was a few days, or a few months before an uprising they like to call as the Easter rebellion. The year 1916 was young, the first Great War was almost middle aged and Mr. Joseph MacNeil, the tall man who was walking down the dark street wearing a long raincoat due to the heavy rain, was old and senile. He was not alone. Another guy, slightly shorter than him and a lot younger than him, was walking by his side. None of them had talked for quite some time now except some infrequent irritated muttering by the younger male. Joseph paid no attention to that. He was immersed in his own thoughts, or no thoughts at all. With advanced age and reduced mental normalcy he developed an enviable power to disregard and ignore anything happening around him, important or not. He never smiled, but he was always laughing inside.

A cat crossed their path, from the right side of the road to the left. It crossed the road very slowly in a relaxed yet suspicious manner, keeping both eyes at the two men. It didn’t smile; cats do not smile. They are ever grumpy in front of strangers. Also, it was probably irritated by the rain. Joseph and his companion could see the left side of the creature under the weak streetlamp, even weaker due to the heavy downpour. It was all black except three small circular white patches few inches apart from each other, close to its left front shoulder. If connected, the patches would have formed an equilateral triangle, almost. The white looked yellow under the lamp light. Joseph stopped as soon as he saw the cat. He didn’t move even after the cat was gone. The younger man was restive. He looked at Joseph and said impatiently,

“Let’s go dad, or we will be late for dinner.”

With an unnatural calmness in his voice, Joseph said,

“I can’t. The cat crossed the road. I have to wait till someone else crosses the line.”

“The imaginary line you mean? The cat’s trail?”

“Yes.”

There was not a single sole in sight, probably due to the crazy rain, as the street is usually quite lively, even late at night. Even the shops were closed. Joseph’s son couldn’t see any help coming to their way anytime soon. He looked around in vain, muttered something under his breath, and then frowned at Joseph.

“Come on dad, don’t be superstitious now. It’s raining so badly! We need to get home soon. Jackie is waiting, and it’s almost bedtime for the kids. Let’s move on, please.” He pleaded.

“I can’t. No one crossed the line yet.”

There was a pleasant tone in the old man’s voice. He was not irritated by his son’s urgency, he was not worried about the delay. He just stood there by the road getting soaked in the rain, as that is what he knew he should do.

The son thought for a while and he could see only one way out of this deadlock. He asked his father,

“Will you start walking if I cross the line before you? That way you don’t have to cross it first”.

“Yes.” Joseph replied, with his eyes on the road, or the rain, or the void.

The young son, who is also a young father, let out a sigh of relief. He was eager to get back to his family. He started towards the invisible trail dragged by the cat.”

***

I went to the café next evening, slightly late than usual. It was very crowded for some reason. And noisy as a result. I settled down with a cup of coffee. After a while I noticed that Frida was taking off her apron. Apparently her shift was over and she was leaving. No Frida behind the counter means no free refill for me. So I decided to leave as well. The place was way too crowded for me anyway.

It was a nice day outside. About half an hour before the sunset, the sun was yellow and sleepy. There was no cloud to be seen in the sky, the breeze was polite and warm and comforting. I figured I’d head towards the marina park and stay there till sundown. As I walked out of the café, lit up a cigarette and started to stroll north lazily, I saw Frida and a friend of hers walking in the same direction. I assumed that they were going to the parking lot. But they turned towards the marina. At this point I started to feel a bit weird. I was not following her, but all the evidences pointed to the contrary. I considered going back but I didn’t want to miss the soft grass, mellow breeze and the lovely sunset either. So I stayed on the path, consciously maintaining a considerable distance. Damn – now that I’m narrating it, I do sound like a creepy stalker!

Anyway, when we reached the marina she headed for the beach with her friend. Her friend also worked at the same coffee shop and she was quite formidable looking and didn’t want them to see me while she (the friend) was around. So I settled on the grass lawn, facing the sea. The sun was hitting on my face like a warm and soft pillow, made of real bird feather. The schooners and the speedboats and the sailboats on the water started to arouse a feeling of loneliness in me, an aura of hopeless stagnancy was around them. The sun had turned into an orange ball, stealing the blueness of the sky surrounding it. The sky looked morbidly pale, taking the color of a young drunkard’s vomit. The sailboats were a bunch of lonely bastards stacked together against their will. They were not talking, or communicating in any way, to themselves. They were not even looking at each other. Every single one of them was a pompous egomaniac prick, silently denouncing all the rest of them.

I looked at the people walking by the waterfront. They were laughing and running and talking, and they were slowly turning into silhouettes with yellow rays, short and bright, coming out of their heads. I saw a thin-legged guy in shorts carrying a big painting that covered his head and most of the upper body. The painting was an imitation of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. It was bigger than the original they have at a museum in Manhattan. Suddenly he moved the painting and I could see his face. I knew that guy! His name was Zach and I have seen him at the Museum of Modern Arts once, coincidentally the same museum that houses the real Starry Night. I remember him because he stood there facing one of the many masterpieces by Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and he was trying to masturbate right in front of it – with his dick out in his hand and all. It made quite a panic amongst the visitors and he was thrown out quite promptly (he got lucky that they didn’t call the cops). I went out with him and started to talk to him. Being a painter himself, he was a very interesting guy; and absolutely crazy. I guess you have to be a little crazy to get aroused by Picasso’s crooked sense of sexuality.

“Yo Zach.” I shouted at him, on that particular day at the marina, “What brings you to this godforsaken part of Long Island, man?”

He smiled when he saw me – he had an absolutely brilliant smile. And we talked for a minute. Turned out he was following a ‘chick’ from Queens. The gigantic painting was supposed to be a present for her! (Bless her soul!) Zach was in a hurry, of course. So he vanished almost as suddenly as he appeared. Apparently there are a lot of stalkers walking around the streets – and some of them are hiding under the Starry Night!

The sun was red by the time I looked at it again. And the air was turning cold and it was getting darker. I saw Frida coming back from the beach with her friend. I figured it was time for me to leave so I started to walk back to the village, and resumed following them in the process. They were walking back to the café. I decided it was time for me to get back home.

It started to rain when I was close to the white picket fence, only a few drops at first – infrequently. Within a minute it turned into a heavy downpour. I didn’t notice when the clouds gathered as it had been dark for a while. I was beginning to climb the hill with the picket fence to my left – the same place where I started to think about the Dublin story the day before. There were cars coming down the hill – their engines challenging the deafening sound of the rain, their yellow headlights giving the falling raindrops a golden illusion. And under those car lights I saw the cat running frantically from the right side of the road to the left. I had never seen a cat in these roads before. When the cat survived the road and reached the walkway, right in front of me, it slowed down. It turned its eyes towards me and it almost stopped. That made me stop too, because I could see the black body of the cat. The left side of it. I could see the three small circular white patches few inches apart from each other, close to its left front shoulder. The cat from my made up story. It kept its gaze on me for a few seconds and then looked away and jumped over the white fence suddenly, and vanished – leaving me awestruck, puzzled, drenched and immobile in the middle of the walkway.

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Deepayan Bhattacharjee is a writer living in Siliguri, India. He has a Masters in Computer Science from Stony Brook, New York, and left his job as a researcher to pursue traveling and writing.

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